Tag Archives: Verse

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

surfs

I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

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This 310 page, AR 5.4 biography reads like a dream being remembered and flowing with newly awakened images presented in a lyrical way. The changes in point of view and writing style keep the book bouncing like a boxing match, and flesh out the early life of Muhammad Ali for middle grade readers.  Only at the very end does it mention that he changed his name when he converted to The Nation of Islam, it doesn’t detail much about it, and it doesn’t mention his eventual conversion to Islam, even though it does mention him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his death.  I understand that the book focuses on his preteen and teen years, but it seems like The Awakening of Malcolm X also intentionally cut that footnote out of the book, and having read that book a few weeks ago, it seems a deliberate exclusion in both cases and that bothers me.  It could be coincidence, as both 2020 published middle grade coming of age books have familial support in the writing and research, admittedly it just might be my timing of reading them makes it seem that something larger is at play.  Ultimately, this book gives insight into who Cassius Clay was, and what his life and friend circle looked like as a boy in Kentucky. The verse and flow of the text make the book an easy and enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

Lucky is Muhammad Ali’s friend growing up and is the narrating voice that sets up each chapter and overall framing of the book.  The bookish friend is a writer and eventually a journalist that moves the story forward.  The verses that follow each intro are the imagined voice of Muhammad Ali.  There is a bibliography at the back, but the story starts with this warning, or disclaimer, or wink of sorts:

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The book opens with Lucky and the Clay family waiting for the phone to ring in 1958 to find out if Cassius has won in Chicago.  He is there fighting for the National Golden Gloves.  He eventually loses the tournament, but he doesn’t stay down.  The book then rewinds and starts back before Cassius ever enters the ring.  The reader gets to know about Granddaddy Herman and the bond that the two share.  He is Cassius’s church and source of pride.  We also learn about how Cassius sees the world and the racism that exists in it. His humbleness and frustration with seeing how hard his mom has to work for so little reward.  We see how his friends shape him, but more importantly how he shapes them, and we see how although he struggles in school how he is articulate and respectful and beloved by so many.  His younger brother is a constant in the story, as is the narrator Lucky.  The book gets inside the character Cassius and if you didn’t know it was a biography, you would think it was a fictional coming of age book.  The ups and downs, the setbacks, the frustrations, the dreams, it all flows and makes you feel for this determined kid, who despite all his bravado, is really a down to earth human being.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I learned anything ground breakingly new reading this book, but I felt like I got to know the material in a more fleshed-out way.  It isn’t a list of facts or hight lights, it is the nuanced day-to-day that lift him off the page and out of the headlines.  I like the change of voice and style of writing, it made sense to me, and allowed the book to resonate differently than a traditional biography would.   I think it will also appeal to a wider audience because of the verse and easy flow.  I similarly enjoyed the illustrations that pepper the book.  I appreciate that the story is told from a friend looking in on someone that he knows well, but I almost would have preferred his brother being the voice and bringing the reader even closer to the boxer. Ultimately I want to know more about his parents and his brother and how they felt about his success.  The book didn’t answer a lot of question, but hopefully it will spark the curiosity of readers to go and learn more.

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FLAGS:

He slightly mentions crushes and dating, that his dad is out galavanting Friday nights until Saturday.  There is mention of a side character having part of his face damaged in an explosion, there is reference to the N word.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider the book as a book club selection if it served a larger purpose or the group had a preexisting interest.  I think if I were to meet with a group of kids more than just once a month for an hour or so for a book club discussion, this book would have a lot of potential for introducing the athlete, writing styles, historical implications and so on.  I just don’t know that we could get to all that in such a limited time. If they had already learned about his boxing accomplishment,  his protesting of the war, his conversion for example, this book would be a great discussion extender to supplement basic knowledge of him.

 

 

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Three hundred and forty pages written in verse that beautifully consume you and leave you emotionally changed and vulnerable and humbled all at once.  The book claims it is for middle grades, but I think middle school will appreciate it more, and I sincerely hope everyone of all ages will take a couple of hours to fall under the spell that is woven to tell a story of a refugee leaving home and starting anew in America.

SYNOPSIS:

Jude is a 12 year old girl living on the beach in Syria, watching American movies with her friends and hanging out at her dad’s store.  With an older brother and a little sister on the way, life as told from her own perspective is pretty good.  Until it is not.  Until the crimes they only hear about happening in Aleppo and Damascus start to hit closer to home.  Until her brother starts sneaking out to meetings with other youth hoping to change the politics of their country.  Until a raid almost catches Jude and her brother and her parent’s decide it is time for Jude and her mother to journey to America, for a little while, to visit her mom’s brother and deliver the baby.

America is not like it is in the 90’s movies that Jude loves: Pretty Woman, Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality.  Her American aunt and her Uncle that seems to have forgotten his Syrian upbringing, are gracious and welcoming and their daughter, Sarah, who is less than a year older than Jude waxes and wanes in her approach to her cousin.  Adjusting to school, life without baba and her brother, and all the other adaptations that moving to a new country entail are brought to life through Jude’s eyes and understanding of the world around her.  As she comes of age and decides to wear hijab, as Islamaphobia shakes her sense of justice, and her little sister is born, the reader sees her grow and change and mature and find themselves hoping that she will soar.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the style of the story telling somehow gives life to so much.  With verse some things are highlighted in detail and other things skimmed over and yet at the end, not only do you feel like you understand Jude, but a lot of the side characters as well, which caught me off guard.  Truly the writing is strong and deliberate.  A lot of the politics and war crimes occurring in Syria are not detailed, and I have to assume that is because the point of view is a 12 year old girl that is blissfully in her own world.  I imagine this is also why the target audience is listed as 8-12 year olds, because it simplifies a truly horrific situation.  Also because despite moments of raw vulnerability, the book stays pretty optimistic and hopeful.  

I like that the characters are Muslim, and that the mom scolds her brother for not going to the mosque.  The book does talk about Jude’s period starting and thus Jude starting to wear hijab, which is one of the reasons I feel like early middle school might be a bit more appropriate age group.  There isn’t too much talk about faith and Islamic beliefs, but a few tidbits are sprinkled in, prayer, not eating pork, modesty.  The book is not gender exclusive, but I think girls will gravitate much more to Jude’s perspective, experiences and voice.

The only thing I found a bit off is that the book takes place in modern time, present day, yet none of them have cell phones or social media.  Jude Skypes her dad, yet writes letters to her friend back in Syria and is distraught when they don’t have a forwarding address to send them to after her friend also leaves home.  It seems that social media, email, a cell phone number, something would be available for them to all keep in touch.

FLAGS:

There is mention of Jude and her friends having to sneak in to see Pretty Woman because Julia Roberts is a prostitute, and mention of blood between one’s legs and periods starting.  The book otherwise is pretty clean.  It hints at her kind of crushing on a boy that is in the play with her, but nothing more than friendship is explored.  Violence mentioned is minimal and language is clean even when dealing with hate crimes in America.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a good chance that next year the students joining the middle school book club will be all girls, so if that is the case and the school counselor feels all the girls can handle the puberty aspects mentioned I would totally do this book.  The book reads very quick and might be a good way to get new kid to give a book club a try as well.

Author’s website: http://jasminewarga.com/about

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/80127-q-a-with-jasmine-warga.html

Interview with the Author: https://www.hbook.com/2019/04/authors-illustrators/publishers-previews/spring-2019-publishers-preview-five-questions-for-jasmine-warga/

 

 

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney illustrated by Shane W. Evans

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I didn’t realize the book was written in prose until I opened it up to read, and immediately taken-aback I rechecked the AR level and sure enough, this 309 page book that is written in prose and covers the genocide in Darfur, is written on a 4.2 level. And it is amazing. I forced myself to stop reading at one point so as to not rush the depth and soul of the simple words from being lost in haste.  It is truly, in my opinion, a beautifully remarkable feat to convey such horrific atrocities with such hope and integrity to young adults in a palatable and inspiring way.

“Allah is the light,” he says.

I ask,

“How do you find Allah’s light?”

Old Anwar says,

“Take the path that shines the brightest.”

SUMMARY:

Amira’s life on her family’s farm is by no means easy, but she has loving parents, a little sister, her beloved sheep, and a dream of going to school.  Her father advocates for her, but her mother, steeped in tradition, sees education only as a waste of time.  The illustrations and sparse words manage to convey fairly solid understanding of Amira’s life, optimism, and relationships with those closest to her.  Although warned of the dangers the Janjaweed could cause, Amira remains fairly unconcerned about the mounting political unrest around her, until it is too late.  When death and the destruction of her home force the surviving members of her family and neighbors to seek refuge in a camp many miles away, the reader sees how truly horrific her experiences have been.  She refuses to speak or rather cannot, when a chance encounter with an aid worker brings her the prospect of getting her voice back, through the empowerment of a red pencil.  With restored determination she convinces an elder neighbor to teach her, but it is not enough for Amira Bright.  Her sparrow needs to soar free.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You expect a book written in verse to have a lot of imagery and symbolism, and The Red Pencil does a good job of balancing the story and the description, to keep the book on track.  The linear story line remains focused on telling the story at hand, making it attainable for elementary and middle school children.  The Darfur conflict is complicated at best, and using verse to convey it from a young girl’s voice allows a lot of the politics and dirtiness of war to be side-stepped without dismissing it.  Amira’s optimism and hope is at times naive, but more as a reflection of her personality then out of ignorance. She sees things, and feels things, and must deal with things, no child should, but her spirit shines through and keeps the book from being depressing, while still being sad.

Today the red pencil does more

than beg for my hand.

It makes me a promise.

It tells me to try.

The characters are Muslim and they rely on Allah, and pray, yet Amira’s thirst for knowledge includes that of learning the Koran (Qur’an) as that knowledge too, has not been readily available to her  There is a lot to discuss in the book, both what is written and what the reader brings to it.  I look forward to teaching the book, and re-reading it once again to savor in the rich images.

Here,

Muma stoops.

Here,

she has nothing to reach for.

FLAGS:

Their is violence when the Janjaweed attack her family.  But I think it is conveyed in a manner suitable for 3rd grade and up.  It is not celebrated or glorified, it is traumatic and has repercussions that are respectfully conveyed.  There is also mention of a child bride, but not in so many words, that in all honesty I doubt most young readers will be as bothered by it as perhaps they should.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a discussion guide in the back of the book along with an Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, Character/Location Pronunciations, and Important Terms that Appear in the Book.

An Educators Guide: http://media.hdp.hbgusa.com/titles/assets/reading_group_guide/9780316247801/EG_9780316247801.pdf

A study guide and quiz: http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-red-pencil/free-quiz.html#gsc.tab=0

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